68. The Last Temptation – Alice Cooper
THE LAST TEMPTATION (1994)
“We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” Wayne and Garth
“Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. Being a Christian is real tough. That’s real rebellion!” Vincent Furnier
Born Vincent Damon Furnier in 1948, a man would one day legally take on the name of his first band, Alice Cooper. Not born out of séance as legend has attributed to it, the band took on an androgynous name to match the on stage persona of its leader. Shock rock was born and those that followed in its wake from David Bowie and KISS would be forever indebted to Furnier and his bandmates.
Born into a religious family, one that embraced a small offshoot of the mainstream Mormon Church called the Church of Jesus Christ, Furnier always had a rich religious upbringing. His parents would later convert to a more mainstream Christian understanding, with his father becoming a Baptist minister, but it would be several years before young Vincent found his own faith.
After a few albums it became apparent that the band name Alice Cooper had morphed into the stage name for Furnier and it stuck. This villainous, evil, woman killing, “Devil incarnate” character became the main attraction in the world of glam and shock rock and Cooper indulged his fictional personality with drugs, drinking and sexual fantasies. Stage performances included guillotines, blood, animals, fire, smoke and lights like no other band on the planet.
But hidden amongst the teen angst, evil glorification was some amazing rock and roll that delivered hits like School’s Out, Eighteen and No More Mr. Nice Guy. Oddly, the music was never quite as heavy or foreboding as the on stage presence and performance. The same could be said for bands like KISS, whose music was much more melodic and blues and soul oriented than heavy metal.
The 1970’s were very kind to Cooper from a success point of view. He released 7 albums in a row that were either gold or platinum at a time when those numbers were a rarity. Tours were large and lavish. Money abounded. But with the fame and money came intense pressure, alcohol consumption that nearly killed him and longing for the safety of his youth.
The 1980’s were not as kind as new wave and punk took over and the lavish stage performances audiences previously paid big bucks for were replaced with clubs, electronics and sub 3-minute radio ready hooks. Cooper released several albums in a row that did not fare well. He claimed that he did not even remember making many of those album as the result of alcohol amnesia.
In the late 80’s Cooper withdrew and went into alcohol rehab in an attempt to save his marriage and his life. What he found was a supporting family and the faith he had longed for. He moved to Arizona and began a trek of discovery that would eventually lead to the creation of “The Last Temptation.”
A thematic album in which the protagonist is lured into an evil circus sideshow where all his dreams can come true if only he would sell his soul to the sideshow leader, The Last temptation is a morality play set in an evil wonderland. The protagonist, Steve (the same name used in Cooper’s classic Welcome to My Nightmare), is lured into Cooper’s net with promised of cars, women, drugs and relief from the strain and pressure of the world around the young man.
The story is oddly autobiographical as many of the temptations Steve faces are those that Cooper himself struggled against. But like normal, Cooper plays the Devilish character as Alice. This remains to today as Cooper argues that the Cooper character always meets his doom and that a great way to shine a light is to show how dark the darkness can be.
There is a shift here from earlier Cooper works, as the darkness is more realistic and no longer shown in a positive light. Sin is brutal and harmful and our evil inclinations are revealed in a threatening and honest way. This is not a welcomed nightmare and the glory of sex, drugs and rock and roll are debunked.
The morality play and album start with “Sideshow,” a great acoustic based hard rock song that introduces the Cooper character as he begins the incitement of the young man to join his traveling troop of evil. Smart, classic rock riffs with Cooper’s whining rock vocals combine in this 70’s rock sound. The guitar riff is reminiscent of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting,” and is a driving force throughout the song.
The young man, Steve, is visiting the circus, but is invited to see the sideshow by the ringmaster. We realize immediately this is a troubled young man who is looking for a thrill as he bemoans his current circumstance with the line, “I need to get high just to be dull.” So, as much as the listener may want to blame the ringmaster, Steve has his own sinful lusts before the temptations even begin. He has the “God-shaped hole” Luther spoke of and is looking to fill it.
“Nothing’s Free”introduces the ringmaster in a song that sounds musically and vocally uncannily like Steve Taylor. In fact, the first time I heard anything from this album was at a Warehouse Music store in the Summer of 1994 and this was the song that was playing. I initially though I stumbled upon a Chagall Guevara album. It had the similar crunching guitars and a vocal style so eerily similar to Taylor I froze in my tracks.
The song notes that the offer from the ringmaster was to cost Steve something. His soul, his ethics, his morality and his pride. Ultimately the ringmaster is asking Steve for his life.
“Lost in America” follows with Steve’s open complaint about his current circumstances. He wants money, girls and a car. Caught in the catch-22 of knowing that he can’t have any without all of them. A driving, heavier rock song (heaviest on the album). The studio tried to push this song as the single and video, but it never took off. What it did expose was that all the grunge angst of the early 90’s owed a lot to the shock rock of the early 70’s. The final verse reveals that Steve wants to be a “rock star” and embrace the trappings associated with it. Sound familiar?
“Bad Place Alone” follows with a similarly heavy blues rock vibe as the beginning of the temptation is displayed through the introduction of alcohol and drugs. The results are not shown as pretty pictures with hot chicks and drug parties in Hollywood, but rather ambulance rides and detox centers.
“You’re My Temptation” introduces the most powerful and poignant of all temptations. Just like the warning in Proverbs, a dangerous and tempting woman should be avoided. Cooper reveals the Devil in a dress with the line “You fool me with your angel face/Your Master knows where I’m weakest.” It should be noted that Jack Blades (Night Ranger/Damn Yankees) and Tommy Shaw (Styx/Damn Yankees) co-wrote the song.
The first of the two power ballads (and should have been singles) follows with “Stolen Prayer.” The song was co-written and co-performed with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Cornell’s voice is a pleasant addition to the song. Not really a prayer of repentance, but rather a prayer of questioning and a plea for understanding. The ringmaster is still poking the knife into Steve side while confusion and fear have set in. The allusion to suicide (murder?) in the final verse reflects the struggle Steve is going through and he questions what side of the equation his is willing to die for. In the end it appears the ringmaster has stolen the prayer of repentance before they can be uttered and Steve will embrace the evil temptations set before him.
It is at this point that the real spiritual battle has begun with the rocker “Unholy War.” This is a completely Cornell penned tune and it shows with the darker and more “modern” alternative rock leanings. It may also be the weakest song on the album. But Steve’s fear of judgment day begins to show a chink in the ringmaster armor and a shift in Steve’s thinking begins.
With “Lullaby,” Steve begins to reflect upon his upbringing in the faith and how he now longs for those simple truths. Musically in the vein of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” this song really shows the shift in Steve’s thinking and the intense spiritual warfare taking place over the soul of this young man. Cooper’s vocals shift from sweet to dark and evil as the battle rages.
The other ballad (and actual single) is “It’s Me.” This song again was co-written by Blades and Shaw and it really shows. this is a Night Ranger power ballad with a Styx key change at the end. But as the song ends you realize it is the still small voice of the Holy Spirit whispering in Steve’s ear “I know you’ve sinned every sin/ But I’ll still take you in.”
The album closes with the 6 minute epic that I have always wish a band like Thousand Foot Krutch or Stavesacre would cover. Though it has no historical relation to CCM radio, even rock radio, I would place it amongst the best Christian rock songs ever. Here, Steve is delivered to the side but with a fiery result. he must rid his life of the ringmaster and his sinful desires. This will require a purging by fire, or to be “Cleansed by Fire.”
The song starts slow, but by the halfway point is fully rocking and possesses the best bridge lyrically ever. Cooper let’s loose on the devil and his conversion is complete with driving and aggressive list of those things he finally questions the ringmaster about.
What about truth
What about life
What about glory
What about Christ
What about peace
What about love
What about faith in God above
What about war
What about hell
What if I stumble
What if I fell
What about blood
What about greed
And all of these things you’re offering me
Steve eventually tells the ringmaster to go back from where he came…back to Hell! The song is epic musically and lyrically is the perfect close to a powerful morality play set to rock music.
I have met Cooper twice briefly and found him to be one of the nicest guys on the planet. Once was at a Ligonier conference in Pasadena as he is friends with RC Sproul. He was also shopping at a Christian Bookstore in Buena Park I used to call on. The store was located across the street from Knott’s Berry Farm and he was there with his families and wanted to get some Bibles for them as their luggage did not arrive with them.
Cooper has recorded a handful of albums for the last two decades (including the most recent in 2008 with “Along Came the Spider) in which the depravity of man and the need for God has been a constant theme. Alice Cooper, the character, remains the same and in each concert I have been to, has received his judgment and just rewards.